marcus westbury

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Creative Initiative: 2009 Hunter Valley Research Foundation Lecture

August 21st, 2009 by marcus

Last night i had the honour and the opportunity to deliver one of this year’s Hunter Valley Research Foundation lectures at Newcastle’s City Hall. It’s quite an honour given some of the impressive people who have done it before.

Anyhow, in case you missed it (and although there were a few hundred people there most of you probably did) i thought i’d post my notes here. It’s long and a little rough and may not reflect in all cases what i actually said but i think it’s actually a really good reflection of thinking that led to Renew Newcastle in particular:

Creative Initiative: Culture, Democracy, and Change

The title of tonights talk is about creative initiative but as i sat down to write this i realised that much of the talk is really about Newcastle. Although i no longer live here, anyone who follows my work, my tweets and status updates, or my writing will notice that I talk about Newcastle a lot.

When I got the chance to write and present an arts series for the ABC and took the entire first episode was a thinly veiled excuse to talk about the problems of Newcastle.

I’m going to talk tonight about political and economic philosophy in a roundabout kind of way and ultimately get to the Renew Newcastle project as a manifestation of a philosophy.

I assume that some of you are here because you are interested in Renew Newcastle. If you’re not at the beginning I hope you leave converted to the cause.

I’ll come back to this at length to how and why it works, but Renew Newcastle is a scheme to bring life back to the CBD. To date we have placed 36 projects in what were 24 formerly empty buildings. They include art galleries, studios, web and graphic design businesses, publishers, film and video studios, retail shops, fashion designers, jewellery workshops, milliners, photographic studios and galleries, and a food co-op.

I will get to that, but first i want to get to how we got there.

Tonight i want to begin with the thinking behind Renew Newcastle and to explain the four key elements that led to the founding of the project last year.
You will probably get a little of my obsessions and frustrations along the way.

I describe myself as “pragmatic idealist”.

I believe it is vitally important to want for better and to aspire to change things. I don’t think it’s enough to leave things to markets – particularly in areas where they obviously fail – but i am certainly not an old socialist centralist.

I’ve never been one for hollow gestures.

I’m far more interested in how you can create changes than in banging heads against brick walls around specific issues.

I am also lazy enough to believe in following the paths created by possibility. I don’t believe in wasting time if it can’t be done i’d much rather spend my energy on what is possible rather than arguing over what is ideal.

It will probably become evident tonight is that I also have an unhealthy obsession with what i would call “systemic consequences”.

I am obsessesed with the way that our systems of communication, of economics, of culture and of politics push us towards undesirable outcomes.

Much of my work across a variety of fields is about questioning and challenging existing systems and tinkering with new systems that might produce new results.

The place i want to start tonight is with the state and dynamic of Newcastle itself…

For those of you who don’t know me I grew up in Newcastle. I spent my formative years out in Charlestown, then Shortland, then Waratah. I went to Jesmond High School. I got kicked out of Newcastle University.

I lived the first 23 years of my life here in this city. I’m 35 now. With the exception of a couple of brief periods I’ve lived the last 12 years in either Sydney or Melbourne.

I’ve never been able to get a proper job in Newcastle. Much of the pattern of the last decade has been earning money outside of Newcastle and spending it here on things that cost me money to do.

In the years that i haven’t lived here:

· I’ve started the This Is Not Art festival here back in 1998 and ran it for five years,

· I’ve made a TV series which focussed in part on this place,

· For the last two years i’ve been back and forth to establish what is now called Renew Newcastle.

I guess i’m technically not a local anymore. But i am a card carrying member of the Newcastle Knights and have a pretty much unbroken connection to this place that has lasted throughout my entire life.

In the last year I’ve made 21 trips to Newcastle.

The longest was for a week and a half . The shortest was about three hours – in which i managed to cram in meetings with both the State and Federal Arts Minister.

I’m pleased that the current edition of the Jetstar in flight magazine has a big feature of Renew Newcastle because I’m sure the staff at Williamtown had identified me as a drug runner.

If it’s not already evident I love Newcastle and yet what has been happening to Newcastle breaks my heart.

As I return again and again and i feel at times that i am witnessing a tragedy in time lapse as the city is failing, falling apart and hollowing out.

The decline and decay of this city is something you notice even more acutely when you go away and come back.

Living here it is easy to simply seeing another empty shop, one at a time is something you barely notice. At my time scale it is another empty block at a time.

I always stay in and around the city but i realise that many locals have simply stopped coming in to the city entirely if you have the slightest choice about it.


Newcastle’s empty shops

For those of you who haven’t looked in a while, there are now about 130 empty buildings in Newcastle.

In running TINA, I’ve also brought many thousands of people from outside Newcastle to this city. I’ve desperately wanted to show them the city i love and that i am proud of.

This is what they see…


I think that explains why i am angry about Newcastle.


I am angry that this can be allowed to happen in Australia in the 21st century.


I am angry at the neglect and at the pathetic leadership.


I am angry that this city is an afterthought in other agendas.


I am angry that this could happen.

How this has happened is a long and complicated story.

The more i travel, and the more i talk about Newcastle, the more i realise that Newcastle has a very unique dynamic.

Both for better and for worse there is something extremely distinctive about this place.

Newcastle is a uniquely beautiful place. You can take your Sydney harbour and shove it. For me that view from Fort Scratchley back over the city is the most beautiful in the world.


Newcastle is an underrated place. For people who haven’t been here the gap between the perception and the reality is so negative and so great. I have made it one of my missions in life is to rectify that.

There’s a mindset here that is unique too. Newcastle has enormous pride at yet it profoundly lacks confidence.

Novocastrians have this great defensive resilience. They can get up off the canvas again and again. It can dust itself off, shake off its wounds and return with pride. But i think they struggle to imagine what it would be like to not get hit all the time. Or to be the ones throwing the punches for a change.

There is a unique political dynamic here. That its seats are negligently safe and that it is a large Australian city that is not a centre of government means that entire levels of the political process behave like they’re not here

Within that vacuum everything at the local level things become hyperpoliticised. Larger debates about the affairs and agenda of the country and the world are often play out in microcosm through the City Council. To the best of my knowledge there is no other place on earth where “the bloody council” is assumed to be responsible for absolutely everything.

Of course, in my experience Newcastle City Council is both actually bloody useless and also unfairly blamed for many things that are well beyond their control. Paralysis is probably an inevitable consequence of being blamed for everything regardless of what you do and don’t do.

We too easily characterise each debate around change and development as an argument between two alternatives: one extreme that wants to bulldoze this great city and start again and one that is opposed to all change for the sake of it.

Tonight, i’ll spare you all another round of those debates.

But i do want to acknowledge something about the psychology of them. Newcastle has become obsessed with large scale change. Much talk and attention is given to notion that the future of the city will be established or destroyed by any single big thing – whether that is in relocating the university, removing the rail line, the proposed GPT development or any number of other issues that have come up down the years.

We are constantly deferring the future. I am convinced that through this obsession with mega changes that are just over the horizon, Newcastle consistently misses the far more immediate imperatives of today.

The second key factor that informs Renew Newcastle is my firm belief that culture comes from THE BOTTOM UP AND NOT THE TOP DOWN…

I am an initiativist and not a bureaucrat.

I believe in the power of initiative, experimentation, entrepreneurship and innovation.

I believe that culture comes from the bottom up and not the top down. That one basic idea that has underpinned both my Not Quite Art TV series, it is evident in the festivals that I have directed and is central to the approach of Renew Newcastle.

It’s the core model behind This Is Not Art. It is one festival that goes by as many as 5 names: Electrofringe, Sound Summit, The National Young Writers Festival, etc.

It is actually hundreds of small events clustered tightly together rather than one or more big ones. Thousands of people come to Newcastle each year for the combination of events and few come for any single one of them and no single one of them would work alone.

Similarly, even when working on large scale events such as the cultural program of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne I’ve followed much the same approach. This was an example of such a project: The Containers Village in Melbourne’s docklands. 42 shipping containers each with unknown artists from different Commonwealth countries. I think the containers village demonstrates the power of accumulating small things in interesting ways.

A visual art exhibition that ran for two weeks and drew about twenty thousand people. Many shows by a name artists in a major galleries or touring artists at entertainment centre. It is a ludicrous number for an exhibition by unknown artists in an unknown location.

In the absence of resources – and this city rarely has any – the best way to make interesting things happen is to accumulate all the things that people are passionate enough to make happen themselves.

You can throw all the resources in the world at high cost, high risk approaches but you are effectively placing an all in bet every time. Whereas by working with and accumulating passionate activity it is much easier to get by without throwing away money. Money is a poor substitute for passion.

In the arts, that’s not the usual way of doing it.

The cultural world is has become a very “top heavy” place. It is heavily bureaucratised – it is full of people whose job as curators, directors, bureaucrats and administrators is to essentially pick winners. That’s how we think about culture when we don’t actually stop to think about it.

A cheaper and far more effective strategy is to ensure that our cities, particularly those with abundant empty spaces can become cost effective places of creation and distribution of living culture. It is far cheaper to intersect with and animate the passions and motivations of people who actively seek to create.

I’ve have long been convinced that Newcastle is a place full of people who can make and do great things and that it can attract even more of them.

The third factor is what i have called “THE PROBLEM OF SCALE”…

Renew Newcastle is an exercise in thinking small.

As mentioned earlier, i think one of the key challenges in Newcastle is the obsession with big things.

Given that i don’t actually object to thinking about and discussing big things, the problem could more accurately be described as the inability to think small.

When you start to think of culture and creative enterprise as organic, and small scale, it starts to change the way you think about it and it starts to change your perception of what creative initiatives and enterprises need to succeed.

For me Newcastle has always been a series of tasks to be completed at street level. Finding somewhere to play, somewhere to rehearse, somewhere to exhibit, somewhere to work with relatively limited capital. For many people with creative imagination it is finding somewhere to sell your work or somewhere that has enough flexibility that you can afford not to.

Cities look very different from the small scale street level than they do from the models of politicians, planners, dictators and economists. Their immediate concerns are actually very basic. Most artists creative types don’t actually get or particularly need grants – but they need economic models that capitalise on their strengths and limit their weaknesses.

Time and time again, creative initiative fails at these very first barriers to entry. Too often those barriers are about cost and commitment and about regulation of space.

In my experience, Newcastle has long been failing badly at this level.

It may surprise you to learn that Newcastle has little or no cheap space. You would not assume this to look at it. But i have discovered this myself repeatedly down the years.

It is a classic example of a systemic failure. In 25 words or less, many of these buildings are worth more as losses, write offs and deductions that as going concerns.

The potential rents are so low that few can actually be bothered renting them. The commission for real estate agents are negligable. Commercial leases by default prohibitively long and often require property owners to meet expensive obligations. For emerging enterprises looking at Newcastle there is no guarantee that half the block you are setting up on will be there in 5 years time.

Two years and a half ago when i was contemplating starting a business here.
I contacted 13 separate Commercial Real Estate Agents in Newcastle via email seeking information about potential properties to lease. I gave them a price range – at the medium to high end of the asking price for most Newcastle commercial property), preferred but flexible locations, specific indications of what i was looking for and multiple contact details.

I offered to pay for some capital improvements and said i was able to fly to Newcastle from Melbourne to inspect any properties that might be likely candidates. Given the incredibly dire state of the commercial property market in Newcastle i was actually worried that i might be a little run off my feet with phone calls.

The total number of properties i have been encouraged to look at was nil. The total number of phone calls received was nil. The total number of “thanks but we don’t have anything for you at the moment” emails was nil.

Indeed, the total amount of communication from anyone in the Newcastle Real Estate industry was nil. Where i have managed to chase people around specific properties the general response was actually to discourage my interest and warn me against considering investing here.

There is another paradox emerging here.

The more the city hollows out the more difficult properties become to access on viable terms.

If you throw in that many are owned by absentee speculators seemingly have everything to gain and nothing to give when it comes to increasing activity and property prices in this city it doesn’t get any easier.

I want to make it clear that this is not another left wing rant against questionable real estate agents, and evil property owners, I want to be clear that i think there is plenty of blame to go around here.

The problem of scale is a double sided problem.

For fear of sounding like an unreconstructed neo-Liberal, the other great barrier to entry here is regulation.

The explosion of nanny state regulation, nimby campaigns, and compliance costs is disastrous at the small scale.

In designing things that to limit the ability of unscrupulous capitalists to misbehave, we have also created an unintended consequence that actually favours capital and crushes creativity.

The systems that we have designed to limit at the large scale often punish at the small ones. Don’t get me wrong. My argument is not that there should be no regulation, but that it should be proportional. The regulatory process should recognise that there is a stark difference between actions that have irreversible consequences and things that can be safely done and easily be undone.

We are stuck in a bad feedback loop. A $10,000 cost to comply with a regulation is small change to a multinational. It is an immovable barrier to entry for anyone without access to $10,000. You could take any one of a number of examples from liquor licensing, the requirement to submit Development Applications for short term uses, to heritage guidelines, to excessive OH&S costs to reoccupy a vacant premises to dozens of other areas that are practically limiting our ability inhabit space and generate activity.

The paradox is this is the worst outcome for communities. Only those with capital and the ability and expertise are able to operate in such an environment. Those with limited capital can get no toe-hold are those who are excluded while the multinationals of the world receive an even greater relative advantage from their access to capital and expertise.

In Newcastle this could be an entirely theoretically argument, except for one problem:

Newcastle is a small scale city.

It is full of tiny shops and offices.

The viability of those spaces for anything other than bulldozing is dependent on their ability to adapt quickly and cheaply for whatever purpose they may serve.

Newcastle is also a city full of people with bugger all access to capital. Money isn’t exactly everywhere here.

Diversity of scale and approach is a vital missing ingredient.

Small scale, small impact can only happen in an environment of low capital and that has to mean with a low regulatory cost.

It is this area as much as the availability of property that will define the extent of the success of the Renew Newcastle project.

The final factor before i get on to talk about what we’ve actually done is actually a glaring opportunity: NEWCASTLE IS MOVING…

One of my many pet obsessions is with our changing cultural geography.
Technology is changing the patterns of creation, production and distribution in ways that will have a profound impact on Newcastle.
The decline of Newcastle’s old city centre is as a result of a change of technology.


Newcastle old tram routes and current empty shops

The transition from trams to cars is the biggest single factor in Newcastle’s old city declining.


Newcastle’s current Suburban shopping hubs

This is no longer the centre of this city because the activity that used to be focussed here has now moved out to suburban shopping centres – to Charlestown and to Glendale and to all those places that are far more accessible by car than this place is.

New communication technology is also profoundly changing where Newcastle is again.

Newcastle’s old CBD is now an urban space in a great location. It is the last cheap urban space in eastern Australia.

Cheap flights have totally changed the accessibility of this place. When i started TINA we simply didn’t fly people direct to Newcastle as we couldn’t afford it. We flew them to Sydney and told them to make their own way here by car or train.

Now Newcastle is two hours from two hundred dollars from Melbourne or Brisbane.

More importantly, the internet means that everywhere is now a global location.

I’ve found and met many of the people who are in Renew Newcastle remotely from Melbourne via twitter, Facebook, and dozens of other online forums.

I’ve organised Renew Newcastle via Facebook where we now have 2700 people actively following and supporting our efforts. They are almost all Novocastrians and a great diaspora of former Novocastrians from New York to New Zealand.

You can work with and sell to all of those people from Newcastle now.
Newcastle in this context is a rare thing. It is a unique place where people can create, warehouse, distribute and sell original things .

It potentially has a huge competitive advantage. As we’ve discovered since we put the call out Newcastle it is already a city full of people who make clothes, or jewellery, or music or whatever who sell their work across Australia and around the world. It can be one of the first places to genuinely attempt to harness that in its rejuvenation.

Newcastle’s useless, small scale, broken down infrastructure is actually perfect for such people. It’s cheap. It’s in a great location.

The postal service and the internet work as well here as they do anywhere.

Newcastle is ripe for business models that do not rely on passing trade.

Newcastle is a great place for studio galleries in that are destinations. Having a cluster of special and unique things in this city makes the city itself a destination in a way that all the suburban shopping centres in the world will never be.

They are the four key factors that have driven the thinking that has got me to this point:

  1. The unique situation of Newcastle,
  2. The idea of small scale and bottom up solutions
  3. The unique practical problems that prevent bottom up activity, and
  4. The great potential for new and networked niche enterprises to locate here

Before i finish by explaining the model we’ve developed and what we’ve achieved so far i want to explain one final thing about what Renew Newcastle is meant to be.

Renew Newcastle is not a masterplan or a a grand vision. Renew Newcastle is “A real life experiment”…

The difference between an “initiativist” and a bureaucrat or an administrator is that i believe strongly the value of trying and experimenting. I believe in the value of making mistakes providing that they aren’t too expensive and don’t bring other things down with them.I believe in learning from failure not fearing it. I profoundly believe that culture, life and commerce works best as an ecology.

The aim is to create fertile ground for many small things to start, knowing that many of them will dies and hoping that some of them will succeed. It is not up for us to decide which ones will succeed just to ensure that new things are always starting.

Renew Newcastle is a structure to start things that process off and not an attempt to get the entire city to conform to a single solution.

So what exactly is Renew Newcastle?

Put simply Renew Newcastle seeks to treat all the empty space as an asset and a opportunity. The aim has been to allow people to access those spaces while they sit empty. We aren’t trying to run projects just broker access for other people who want to and help them get started.

We started with a facebook group which now has over 2500 members. We held a few meetings with a few hundred people at them. We have knocked on many doors and recruited everyone from hippy artists and community activists to Sparke Helmore as our pro bono lawyers to the Newcastle Citycentre Committee and the Hunter Business Chamber.

Indeed this may in fact be the only project in the history of Newcastle to get praise from the Save Our Rail people and Hunter Permaculture to Hunter Business Chamber and GPT – who were the first large scale property developer to get behind the project.

All of the thinking about the problems of scale and space has led to the establishment of a legal structure that i believe is unique in the world.

Renew Newcastle is a not for profit company. We ask that property owners to license their buildings to Renew Newcastle while they have no tenants or are awaiting development. The fact that the agreements are liscenses rather than leases mean that we do not trigger any of the expensive obligations on the owners part and they do not forgo some of the tax losses or property value writedowns that might accompany a peppercorn lease.

Renew Newcastle’s default agreement is based on occupying the property on a rolling 30 day basis. At any time property owners can give 30 days notice should they receive a commercial offer or need to proceed with development. This is very important enables the property owner to provide the property without sacrificing the potential commercial returns and is one of the key reasons why properties can be made available so cheaply.

Renew Newcastle then manages the short term use of the building, we pay public liability and other necessary insurances, and take over basic maintenance such as applying a fresh coat of paint, cleaning it out, fixing broken windows and removing graffiti while the buildings are in Renew Newcastle’s care.

Renew Newcastle then finds “custodians” who use the buildings to launch or expand their own cultural, creative and community projects until the owner finds a permanent tenant or a redevelopment is ready to proceed.

Our argument to property owners is that activity is the single most important factor in turning around vandalism and decay. Our projects breathe positive life into the area, stimulating business and activity for surrounding enterprises, contributing to a desirable neighbourhood, increasing and commercial interest in the area over the medium turn.

To date Renew Newcastle has placed 36 projects in 24 formerly empty buildings.

Renew Newcastle has nurtured a wide range of creative enterprises including art galleries, studios, web and graphic design businesses, publishers, film and video studios, retail shops, fashion designers, jewellery workshops, milliners, photographic studios and galleries, and community space for a food co-op.

I’d like to think that the net result is unambiguously good for Newcastle.

At this point i went i went into a photo show and tell of what Renew Newcastle has actually achieved but for that you can see The Renew Newcastle Flickr group for the pictures and the project page of the Renew Newcastle web site for information about the projects themselves.

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11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Rachel O’Reilly Aug 21, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    clapping loudly from a great distance. x

  • 2 Judith Merryweather Aug 22, 2009 at 8:19 am

    I was there and commend you for your initiative. I too left Newcastle for many years in search of “more”. Since returning to live in this great area, I feel proud to show our many visitors from all around the world – we just make sure that we don’t drive them down Hunter Street! Hopefully that can change in the near future! Well done!

  • 3 jason Aug 22, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    I went to Newcastle a few days ago as a result of your blog and “Not Quite Art”. I loved the place. I think it is still one of those “undiscovered places” in Australia. With time it will boom.

  • […] picture is worth a thousand words. Following on from The Hunter Valley Research Foundation lecture, i showed some slides of the before and after results in some of the Renew Newcastle […]

  • 5 Initiativism Aug 25, 2009 at 2:03 am

    […] using the work “initiativist” recently to define my philosophical approach to culture. I used the term in my lecture in Newcastle the other night and attempted to sneak it into my column in The Age this week but it was removed by an overzealous […]

  • […] not just the Upper West Side. Sometime Curious Capitalist commenter Marcus reports (in a lecture he gave last week) of trying to rent some commercial space in the depressed and vacancy-plagued central business […]

  • 7 TIME is on my side (and WIRED too) Aug 29, 2009 at 11:01 am

    […] His article has a few quotes from the more economics centric slabs of my Hunter Valley Research Foundation lecture last week. […]

  • […] The  HVRF talk i gave last week has garnered a lot of attention for its analysis and response to th… In the contexts in which i find myself talking about Renew Newcastle the economic issues are rarely discussed or analysed. Given the interest i really need to take the time to flesh that out a lot more explicitly. Unfortunately i’m mentally between about 10 different deadlines and physically between Melbourne, Sydney and Perth so it may have to wait. […]

  • 9 Games May 21, 2011 at 2:38 am

    Not sure if you’re still taking comments on here, but I really like the way you stand up for Newcastle. My girlfriend was there and she really liked it. Have things improved?

  • 10 Daniel Medence Oct 13, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    After I read your post I think I know what you are feel.
    I live in Hungary in a city. Once it was one of the best city but nowadays many thing changed.

    Just to add a story that happend in this year:

    There is a main road which cross the city. In the center of the city there were big improvements.
    One side of this road two new and beautiful building was build. One of them is a concert hall the other one is a library.

    When VIP came to see these new buildings the city leadreship needed to hide the houses in front of these building.
    The reason why is because they were ugly. Much wors than the images you show in this post.

    I hope in the future they will be renovated.

  • 11 SEO Training Pakistan Jan 26, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    I was there and commend you for your initiative. I too left Newcastle for many years in search of “more”. Since returning to live in this great area, I feel proud to show our many visitors from all around the world – we just make sure that we don’t drive them down Hunter Street! Hopefully that can change in the near future! Well done!